Rishi Sunak’s announcement on Friday of a tranche of government interventions did not in any sense constitute a fully-formed raft of solutions to the acute strains the spread of the coronavirus has placed on the UK economy. Still, it has allayed some of the more significant concerns regarding the ability of some to cover their living expenses. What has been announced, however, is by no means a comprehensive package. Indeed, it actively omits specific coverage for a significant proportion of the population: namely those working in the gig economy, renters, Universal Credit claimants, and students.
If you’re a student in the UK you find yourself on the outside of several layers of coverage, able to access only the maintenance loan and equivalent grants from devolved administrations. These packages are meagre at the best of times. Looking around, it’s plain to see that the available job market is contracting rapidly as businesses are forced to take measures to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. For many the seasonal work they rely upon to tide themselves over during the Easter and Summer breaks simply doesn’t exist anymore. As I write this, heading home to Cornwall from my university in Wales, I’m acutely aware of how much of my home county’s economy is propped up by this kind of seasonal work in the tourist season. With simply no work available, students lack even the recourse of applying for Universal Credit.
As it stands hundreds of thousands of students across the UK are likely going to be out of work and unable to claim any sort of support from the state.
This isn’t a sustainable situation in the current climate and exposes a deep flaw at the heart of the government’s thinking. Their logic thus far means that homeowners and those working ‘normal’ jobs are mostly covered but those in more precarious situations (as a result of successive years of government cruelty and apathy) are essentially left to rot. There is a clear assumption in the Chancellor’s plans that students are fiscal dependents on their families; that they have their own in-built safety net. Often however, this is simply not the case.
Compared to the scale and complexity of the government’s intervention on Friday, the fix for students is a relatively simple one. Piggybacking off the infrastructure and data retained by the Student Finance Company (and devolved equivalents) a flat grant can be credited to each person currently enrolled on the system receiving a maintenance loan. This would then have consequentials at the level of the Barnett formula freeing up money for the devolved administrations, facilitating the ability for respective Student Finance agencies to provide comparable grants if devolved governments see fit to spend money this way. The key emphasis here should be on the money provided being grants via this system, not more money being added on to the final total of student loans people owe under the current system.
It’s a simple potential fix to a gaping hole in the Government’s network of coverage for people while the virus persists; it avoids the administrative potholes presented by a greater uptake in Universal Credit while crucially ensuring that students have the means to continue living during a global pandemic. It’s so simple in fact that it begs the question – why is nobody else talking about this? The current incarnation of the Labour Party can be said to be many things, but coming up short on the priorities of students has not one of them. In the 2017 General Election we spent hour after hour in the media and on doorsteps rightly extolling the virtues of free education and providing ample means for people while studying. But when a genuine honest-to-god crisis hits and that same group of people is left in the lurch, Labour has found itself completely flatfooted and seemingly unable to point out this obvious omission on the part of the government.
Aside from the government and Labour’s failures in this regard, this speaks to a wider problem the world of student politics is experiencing right now. When faced with a crisis threatening the very ability of some students being able to feed and shelter themselves the National Union of Students and essentially every other Students’ Union across the country has been silent on the matter (with my own SU instead helpfully reminding people that Costcutters is still open). How can any of these institutions be said to be looking out for the wellbeing of students if they can’t kick off now, when it really matters?
Student politics aside, we have a short period now to act to bring this problem to public attention and get the matter on the political agenda. Below is a letter template you can use to badger elected representatives to make the wellbeing of students a priority.
It’s come to my attention that Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent intervention regarding emergency wage coverage and Universal Credit expansion omitted any additional support for students specifically during this period of crisis brought on by the Coronavirus.
As I’m sure you’re aware much of the seasonal work students rely on for income has now disappeared due to measures enacted to prevent the spread of the virus, while Universal Credit is virtually impossible to register for as a student.
During all the coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic, the wellbeing of students specifically has not been raised adequately enough.
I believe the best means of ensuring that students continue to have the ability to provide for themselves over this period is via a grant provided through the Student Finance Company and devolved equivalents.
Will you in your capacity as X commit to raising this concern with University senior management/relevant trustees/in parliament at the next available opportunity [Delete as appropriate]